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The Acting Veterans Affairs Secretary Thanked President Trump For Donating His Salary. A Day Later He’s Being Tapped To Lead The VA Permanently

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Robert Wilkie is sworn in as a Deputy Defense Secretary (Pentagon photo)

WASHINGTON, May 18, 2018 — How do you get President Donald Trump to nominate you to lead the government’s second-largest bureaucracy? It helps to tell reporters nice things about him.

Less than 24 hours after he appeared in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room to thank the president for donating his second-quarter salary to the Department of Veterans Affairs, President Trump surprised Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Robert Wilkie by revealing his intention to nominate him as the 10th person to lead the department since it became a cabinet-level agency.

As Wilkie sat unaware in the audience during a White House event on prison reform, Trump began reading prepared remarks, including a list of cabinet officials.

“Joining us today are several members of my Cabinet who are working diligently on this issue: Attorney General Sessions, Secretary Zinke, Secretary Acosta, Secretary Perry, Secretary DeVos, and Acting Secretary Wilkie, who, by the way, has done an incredible job at the VA,” Trump said.

But while what came out of the president’s mouth next may not have been a surprise to journalists and other Trump-watchers who’ve gotten used to Trump’s habit of announcing decisions and personnel changes any time a camera is pointed at him, it was, at least according to the president, a surprise to Wilkie.

“I’ll be informing him in a little while — he doesn’t know this yet — that we’re going to be putting his name up for nomination to be Secretary of the Veterans Administration.”

Aware of what he’d just done, Trump apologized for ruining the surprise but said he’d meet with Wilkie later before rattling off a list of his administration’s VA-related accomplishments.

“We’re very close to getting Choice approved,” Trump said, referring to the VA Mission Act, which is awaiting Senate approval after passing the House earlier this week, “and we had just approved [the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act] which, for almost 40 years, they could not get approved.”

A Pentagon insider who served in the George W. Bush administration, Wilkie’s official biography notes he is the son of a cavalry officer and grew up at Fort Bragg.

He is also the second person the president has nominated to lead the VA following a performance before the White House press corps.

Trump previously tapped the head of the White House Medical Unit, Rear Admiral Ronny Jackson, to take over the Veterans Affairs department after the March 31 departure of Dr. David Shulkin, the sole cabinet-level holdover from the Obama administration and only Trump cabinet official to be unanimously confirmed by the Senate.

The White House said Shulkin resigned amid controversy over a July 2017 trip to Europe on which he brought his wife, though he later said he’d been fired for resisting Trump’s plans to privatize the department, which is the largest integrated health care system in the United States.

Trump’s decision to pick Jackson, then his personal physician, despite his having never managed anything larger than the 40-person White House unit which provides care to the president, vice president, their families, and occasionally staff or anyone else at the White House in need of medical attention, came three months after Jackson briefed reporters on results of the president’s annual medical examination.

Jackson’s performance raised some eyebrows after he told reporters that Trump, who does not exercise and is a frequent consumer of fast food, “might live to be 200 years old.” He attributed Trump’s health, which he called “excellent,” to the president’s “great genes.”

 

As a non-physician, Wilkie gave reporters no insight into Trump’s health or genetics, but like Jackson, he had only good things to say about the president when he accompanied White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders to the briefing room.

Wilkie, who appeared in his capacity as Acting VA Secretary, spoke to reporters after Sanders revealed that Trump, who has pledged to donate his $400,000 salary to charity, would be donating the prior three months of earnings to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

 “I want to thank you for President Trump’s generosity,” he told Sanders before turning to the assembled press before lavishing praise on the president.

“President Trump understands the critical role of caregivers in meeting the essential needs of America’s veterans,” Wilkie said, later adding:  “I am deeply grateful to President Trump for providing me the opportunity to serve America’s veterans and for his generosity in supporting them.”

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Andrew Feinberg is the Managing Editor and lead Washington Correspondent for Breakfast Media, and covers the White House, Capitol Hill, courts and regulatory agencies for BeltwayBreakfast and BroadbandBreakfast.com. He has written about policy and politics in the nation's capital since 2007.

White House

Trump Declares National Emergency After He Doesn’t Get His Way With Border Wall Funding

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President Trump announces that he'll be declaring a national emergency to attempt to fund his border wall in the White House Rose Garden on February 15, 2019 (Screenshot/C-SPAN)

WASHINGTON, February 15, 2019 — President Donald Trump on Friday reacted to Congress’ refusal to fully fund his proposed wall along the U.S.-Mexico border by invoking emergency powers which purportedly allow him to “reprogram” federal funds without the consent of Congress.

“Today I am announcing several critical actions that my administration is taking.”

“We’re going to confront the [national security] crisis on our souther border,” Trump said, adding: “Everyone knows that walls work,” Trump said, citing Israel’s security barrier along the West Bank in the Middle East.

Trump called the idea that most illicit drugs come into the U.S. through ports of entry a “lie” despite statistics from his own Department of Homeland Security which show that most illicit drugs are seized at ports of entry.

“You can’t take big loads through ports of entry,” Trump said. He also suggested that human trafficking was not possible through ports of entry because border agents would see women who are “tied up in the trunk.”

“It’s all a big lie, it’s a big con game. You don’t have to be smart to know you put up a barrier… and people can’t come in until they go right or left and there’s no barrier.”

Trump said that his declaration was not a significant departure from precedent because other presidents had used the National Emergencies Act many times since 1976, when it was signed into law by then-President Gerald Ford.

“It’s been signed many times before. They sign it, nobody cares, I guess they weren’t very exciting.”

“We’re talking about an invasion of our country with drugs, with human traffickers, with all types of criminals and gangs,” he said, citing the existence of “Angel Moms,” a designation for mothers whose children were killed by undocumented immigrants. The designation was created by anti-immigrant group the Remembrance Project.

“So we’re going to be signing a national emergency,” Trump said, calling it “a great thing to do” because of the “invasion” from our country.

He also suggested that China’s drug policy was superior to the United States’ because China executes drug dealers.

Friday’s announcement, the likes of which Trump has openly considered for months, will undoubtedly set up a confrontation between the executive branch and both the legislative and judicial branches as Congress seeks to retain its own constitutional authority over the public purse.

While Congress has seen fit to appropriate only $1.375 billion for border barrier construction, White House Acting Chief of Staff and Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney said that the declaration will allow Trump to redirect three “pots of money.”

These include 600 million from the Justice Department’s asset forfeiture fund, $2.5 billion from the Pentagon’s anti-drug efforts, and $3.6 billion from the Pentagon’s construction budget, regardless of Congress’ express intentions.

A senior administration official said the total of $8 billion will allow Trump to order construction of approximately 234 miles of “bollard wall” barrier.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., blasted the president’s decision in a statement Thursday.

“Declaring a national emergency would be a lawless act, a gross abuse of the power of the presidency and a desperate attempt to distract from the fact that President Trump broke his core promise to have Mexico pay for his wall,” they wrote

“It is yet another demonstration of President Trump’s naked contempt for the rule of law. This is not an emergency, and the president’s fear-mongering doesn’t make it one. He couldn’t convince Mexico, the American people or their elected representatives to pay for his ineffective and expensive wall, so now he’s trying an end-run around Congress in a desperate attempt to put taxpayers on the hook for it. The Congress will defend our constitutional authorities.”

Even some Republicans criticized the decision and suggested it exceeded the president’s constitutional authority.

“We have a crisis at our southern border, but no crisis justifies violating the Constitution,” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said in a statement Thursday.

Maine Senator Susan Collins noted in a statement that the National Emergencies Act, the 1976 law the White House is making use of, was intended for natural disasters or terror attacks.

“It is also of dubious constitutionality, and it will almost certainly be challenged in the courts,” she added.

Collins’ and Rubio’s convictions may be put to the test if Pelosi and House Democrats pass a so-called “resolution of disapproval” to terminate the emergency, which would force Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to hold a vote on the resolution.

McConnell had previously spoken out against the idea of Trump declaring a national emergency on the border, but changed his tune Thursday after the president told him that he’d be signing the appropriations bill needed to stave off another government shutdown.

While Democrats warned that Trump’s invocation of the National Emergencies Act could create a precedent for future Democratic president to follow to take action on gun control or climate change, a senior administration official said Trump’s declaration “creates zero precedent.”

“The president is not waving a magic wand,” the official said, adding that the authority to declare a national emergency has been on the books since 1976.

When asked whether the president was claiming he had authority to ignore specific prohibitions against use of appropriated funds for wall construction, the official claimed that the use of reprogrammed funds in violation of Congress’ prohibition is permissible because those prohibitions do not apply to the previously-appropriated funds the president will be reprogramming.

“This is common authority,” he said.

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White House

McConnell Says Trump to Sign Funding Bill, Declare National Emergency at Border

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WASHINGTON, February 14, 2019 — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Thursday said that President Donald Trump will sign legislation to fund the federal government through the end of the fiscal year, but will declare a national emergency to attempt to repurpose already-appropriated funds for his proposed wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

In a statement, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders confirmed that the president will both sign legislation to fund the government and “take other executive action – including a national emergency – to ensure we stop the national security and humanitarian crisis at the border.”

“The President is once again delivering on his promise to build the wall, protect the border, and secure our great country,” she added. 

The decision to declare a national emergency will set up a confrontation with members of Congress, some of whom are protective of the legislative branch’s power to appropriate funds.

Under the National Emergencies Act, if either the House or Senate passes a so-called resolution of disapproval, the other chamber must hold a vote on the same resolution.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Thursday that she “may” challenge the president’s forthcoming declaration in court.

“I’m going to review our options” she said, calling Trump’s decision “an end-run on Congress.”

Pelosi added that the current situation at the border “is not an emergency,” and cautioned that Trump could be setting a dangerous precedent.

“The precedent that the president is setting here is something that should be greeted with great unease and dismay by the Republicans and we’ll respond accordingly,” she said.

Sanders later told reporters that the White House is “very prepared” for a legal challenge, but said there shouldn’t be any.

“The president is doing his job, Congress should do theirs, she said.”

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Here we go again?

Sanders Won’t Rule Out Another Shutdown, Leaves Open Possibility of Compromise Bill Veto

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WASHINGTON, February 13, 2019 — President Donald Trump has not yet ruled out shutting down the government if he is unhappy with the compromise bill Congress plans to send him, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Wednesday.

“We want to see what the final piece of legislation looks like,” Sanders said when asked about several media reports which indicated that the president would sign the bill, which has been assembled over the past few weeks by a House-Senate conference committee. 

“It’s hard to say definitively whether or not the president is going to sign it until we know everything that’s in it.”

 Sanders admitted there were “some positive pieces” in the proposed appropriations bill, which provides just over a billion dollars for improvements to existing fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border, but rejected the idea that funding levels in the bill are similar to the deal the president blew up in December after being criticized by right-wing talk radio hosts.

She also stressed that a shutdown is “not what [Trump] wants,” but attempted to preemptively blame Democrats for any shutdown the president might cause by refusing to sign the bipartisan legislation.

“If [a shutdown] happens again, that will be because the Democrats completely failed to do their job and work with the president to secure our border.”

A decision by the president to veto the compromise legislation could lead the Congress to attempt to override that veto. 

But the president has indicated that rather than veto the funding, he may take the constitutionally-questionable route of using executive authority to “reprogram” money appropriated for other purposes to build his wall, which was a centerpiece of his 2016 presidential campaign but is overwhelmingly opposed by a majority of Americans.

Still, Sanders dismissed the suggestion that by attempting to reprogram already-appropriated funds — a decision which would almost certainly be challenged in the courts — the president was planning to “go it alone.”

“Most people across the country know that we need border security and the biggest responsibility the president has is to protect the people of this country,” she said. “I think he’s got the support of Americans all over this country and I’d hardly say that’s going alone.”

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